The 20th century has seen tyrants like none in the history of the world—Mao, Stalin, Hitler—and well over 100 million have been killed during those hundred years. The 21st century, meanwhile, is not lacking in comparison in terms of brutal dictators—indeed, some of these updated despots may even excel beyond their predecessors in that craft!
In this list, we have compiled what we believe to be the worst tyrants from our present century. Though their crimes may be less well-known today, future generations will likely define their deeds as “pure evil” years from now. Don’t believe it? Well, have a look:
1. Jiang Zemin, China (in power 1989 – 2002)
Born in 1926, Jiang Zemin, also known as “The Toad,” spent his career climbing the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by partaking in political maneuvering and kissing-up to high-level party officials. Genocide, however, has become his most notable legacy.
By the time of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Jiang Zemin had become a third-tier, high-level official of the CCP. His show of support for the mass killing of students during the protests, in the wake of his predecessor who refused to do so, however, was what lifted him to become a top-tier official and leader of the CCP.
Jiang’s tenure as Party leader would be marked by massive corruption, political in-fighting, and environmental degradation—leading up to his most serious crimes that began at the turn of the century: genocide.
It would seem that Jiang had learned that willingness to slaughter the masses to consolidate power for himself and instill fear in the hearts of those who would have their freedom was a sure means for advancement in the Party.
He took the opportunity in 1999 to find a new target, traditional “qigong” practitioners called “Falun Gong,” 100 million strong, who were blatantly exercising their freedom despite state “disapproval.” Jiang cracked down fast and hard, though not in the open as in Tiananmen Square, as the CCP learned a lesson during the Massacre that the rest of the world “frowns” on wanton killing.
The genocide took the form of forced-labor camps across China where millions of Falun Gong likely passed through over the years and where killing, torture, and horrific treatment are used to get them to concede their freedom, give up practicing Falun Gong, and fall in line with the state.
Those who fail to do so are, according to credible investigations, sent to military hospitals where their organs are removed and sold (for massive profits), and the “donors” are cremated, sometimes while still alive. Based on estimates, approximately 1.2 to 1.8 million Falun Gong practitioners will have died by the scalpel in these facilities by 2018.
Very fortunately, Jiang was removed from power in 2002, though his genocidal “organ harvesting” operations have continued under military jurisdiction.
2. Kim Jong-un, North Korea (in power 2011 – present)
Kim Jong-un has carried on the dictatorship of his father, Kim Jong-il. The regime in North Korea is still one of the world’s most repressive. North Korea has been at the bottom of the Freedom House ranking for political rights and civil liberties.
Prison camps hold as many as 200,000 people, including political dissenters and their families, and even children, who are detained for “crimes” such as hoarding food and “anti-socialist” activities.
According to the US Committee for Human Rights, prisoners are forced to labor in prisons or labor camps where mothers are forced to kill their newborn babies and prisoners are kept in tiny cages.
Although it’s hard to get figures, thousands upon thousands are reported to have perished, quietly or otherwise, in these dens of evil.
In a 2013 report on human rights in North Korea, United Nations Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman proposed an inquiry to document Kim Jong-un’s regime’s crimes against humanity. The report was published in February 2014, and recommends making him accountable for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
3. Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan (in power 1989 – present)
After Al-Bashir seized power of Sudan in a military coup, he immediately suspended the constitution, abolished the legislature, and banned political parties and unions.
His army has routinely bombed civilians and tortured and massacred non-Arabs. The 20-year civil war has claimed the lives of 2 million and uprooted another 4 million.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the massacres in Darfur in western Sudan. The ICC charged him with “murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, and forcibly transferring large numbers of civilians, and pillaging their property.”
4. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe (in power 1980 – present)
Mugabe was elected as Zimbabwe’s first president, but over the years, he has turned increasingly dictatorial. Since 1988, life expectancy in Zimbabwe has dropped from 62 years to 38.
He rewrote the constitution to give himself almost impregnable power. When opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won 42 percent of the vote, Mugabe had him arrested and charged with treason.
In 2002 alone, according to Amnesty International, Mugabe’s government killed or tortured 70,000 people. Unemployment is above 80 percent, and inflation is 500 percent. In 2008, his supporters launched attacks on the opposition, killing 163 and torturing or beating 5,000.
5. Bashar Al-Assad, Syria (in power 2000 – present)
Since taking over his father in 2000, Assad has only contributed to the suffering of his people. In the mass protests around the country triggered by the Arab Spring, Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters led the nation into a civil war that caused over 400,000 casualties in 2017.
Assad has had thousands of suspected dissidents imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Prisoners, including children, are electrocuted, raped, and have had their nails torn out with pliers. He has also been accused of using chemical weapons against non-militant citizens.
In February 2016, head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters: “The mass scale of deaths of detainees suggests that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination as a crime against humanity.”